Chinese-born U.S. vet survived critical language barrier
It has been 16 years since he started his clothing business on the sidewalk of Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His store — a 5-foot-long foldable table with a metal hanger on top — sells 1990s-style women’s and men’s clothes. Although the fruit stand across from him changed its owners from Lee to Wong to Gao, he remained at the same spot.
Every morning, Lai Fa Hom, 89, and his wife park their car within view of the clothing stand — next to a fire hydrant — at the corner of 57th Street, where he says he doesn’t get fined.
“Sometimes I run the red light or double-park. The police don’t give me tickets,” Hom said. The reason, he said, is the veteran certificate he carries everywhere he goes. More than half of a century ago, the U.S. Army sent Hom to the Korean War battlefield. The Chinese Army was one of the enemies. Worrying that Hom, a Chinese immigrant, would trade information with the Chinese, the U.S. Army placed him in the artillery division up in the mountains, away from Chinese soldiers.
“That’s one of the reasons I survived the war,” Hom said. Today, he’s one of the oldest veterans of the American Legion, Lt. B.R Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post 1291 in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Hom came to the U.S. by himself from Canton, China in 1948 when he was 21 years old. He spoke only Taishanese, a Cantonese dialect. With help from family, he opened a laundry business in the Bronx. But just as he thought, he was on the right track of building a new life in the country, North Korea invaded South Korea and the United States became involved in the Korean War. Two soldiers came to his store and drafted him.
“They told me if I don’t go to the army, they will send me back to China,” Hom said. “They have my name and my business address. They know where to find me.”
Hom was given two weeks to sell his laundry business. Although he was an undocumented immigrant, had no high school diploma and barely spoke English, in 1951 he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
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“They called me crazy Chinese man,” Hom said as he recalled his military life of 66 years ago in vivid detail.
The 16-week training took place in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Hom was the only Asian at the division. As a new immigrant who didn’t speak English, other soldiers saw him as a joke. When the commander asked the soldiers to turn left, he turned right; when the trainer explained how to assemble an artillery, he fell asleep in front of the trainer because he couldn’t understand a word.
“It was tough,” Hom said. One of the punishments was push-ups. Hom said he had no idea how many of those he had done over the 16-week period. Still, he passed training and was sent to the battlefield in South Korea.
Being an artillery soldier was a blessing and a curse. On one hand, he was far from any immediate danger; on the other, he was stationed at Pork Chop Hill, so-named because its topographic shape resembled a pork chop. In the winter the mountain was buried in 7 inches of snow, Hom said, with no truck or jet to deliver food. The eight soldiers built a cave with dead branches on the mountaintop and fed themselves snow for days.
During battles, the commander gave orders to soldiers through the radio. Hom had to make sense of the orders through context. But it didn’t always work: On one occasion, the commander on the mountaintop tried to give Hom an order to stop firing. He saw the commander raise his palm, moving it back and forward to signal him. Hom turned around and fired another five rounds.
The commander rushed down to yell at him. “Why did you do that? I told you to stop!”
“I saw his hand. I thought he meant five rounds!” Hom said, remembering the details in his senior house apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where he and his wife were accepted nine years ago. “It sounds funny now. But it was tough back then.”
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He told his story as he ate oxtail stew freshly made by his wife. The 50-inch flat screen TV was playing news about President Donald Trump. “What do you think about the president?” he asked. “I think he’s bad.” He learned English after he came back from the war. His co-worker in a garment factory taught him.
Every so often, Hom hangs out at American Legion’s Chinatown post, a self-funded veteran community center with more than 600 members ranging from 22 to 103 years old. All but seven members — who are white and Hispanic — are Asian, according to Adjutant Gabe B. Mui of the Lt. B.R Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post.
Hom plays Tien Gow, a Chinese gambling game, with fellow veterans every time he comes to the Post. On the four-people game table, he likes to talk about his achievements, especially as a master of Hung Kuen, a southern Chinese martial art, said Huanyu Tan, 69, a Vietnam War veteran. He called Hom his “cousin” because they came from the same village in Taishan, China.
“He’s rather chivalrous,” said Tan. “He never says no to friends who need help. He has a bad temper though. When he doesn’t agree, he yells at you. He’s loud.”
After spending two Christmases in South Korea, Hom was sent back to the U.S. He remained in the Army Reserve until 1960, when he received an honorable discharge.
Thirteen months in the army go a long way. Without ever having had a green card, Hom acquired his U.S. citizenship in 1967. He got his vendor license to set up his clothing table in 2000. The Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which issues the license, favors veterans and the disabled. And of course, Hom also enjoys privileges when stopped by traffic cops.
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